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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 19 September, 2019
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'Bet where you think you're going to win': Why Ireland is trying to learn from New Zealand

New Zealand has punched above it weight in the last two Olympic Games thanks to a bold funding model.

PETER MISKIMMIN SPEAKS a similar language to many sports administrators, but the difference here is that his words — however methodical — have been backed by radical actions, which have yielded remarkable results and prompted a seismic shift in thinking.

Peter Miskimmin Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Miskimmin, the chief executive of Sport New Zealand, was in Dublin last week to deliver a keynote address at a conference named: ‘The New Zealand Way. Grassroots to Greats. What Can Ireland Learn?’

The comparisons between the two countries are obvious and have been talked about before in a sporting context, but, in fact, New Zealand are now streets ahead of Ireland at an elite level, punching way above their weight and demonstrating a propensity to achieve standout success with limited resources.

Consider this.

Since the 2000 Olympics, New Zealand — a nation with an identical population to Ireland — has won 50 medals in both the summer and winter Games, achieving podium success across a range of different sports compared to the 12 medals Irish athletes have brought home.

In Rio, Ireland’s two medals came courtesy of Annalise Murphy in sailing and the O’Donovan brothers in rowing, finishing 62th on the overall medals table, while the Kiwis, in 19th, collected 18 medals across nine sports.

More impressive is the rate of growth they’ve experienced in the last four Olympic cycles, going from four medals in Sydney to the 18 in Rio and their target for Tokyo will be even higher than that.

“By our own measures, we’re doing well,” Miskimmin tells The42. “We’re batting way above our weight and we’ve done it because we made some big decisions.”

Miskimmin and his senior leadership team within Sport NZ — including Geoff Barry, community sport manager, who was also in Dublin — have led the way in making brave changes, going against the grain and, put simply, adapting to have a better chance of survival in the world of modern sport.

“We have to adapt,” he says. “People have to change. Organisations have to change.”

Adapt or die, sink or swim.

Sport NZ recognised the need to keep moving and become ruthless in their decision-making process, as they looked to focus on sports which carried potential rather than spreading its resources across the board.

In other words, the sports which weren’t pulling their weight at an Olympic level, whether that was through performance or the structures it had in place, had their funding terminated.

It was a bold and controversial move, and even when successful can anger federations who are cut adrift, but by targeting half a dozen Olympic sports and investing heavily in them, the rewards have been impressive.

Ireland’s Simon Zebo celebrates scoring a try with Jonathan Sexton New Zealand are successful in more than just rugby. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We’re enormously proud about what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved,” Miskimmin, a former Kiwi hockey international who played at two Olympics, continues.

“There was blood on the floor, it didn’t go down well at all when we brought it in. Thankfully the minister [for sport] at the time hung tough and we got it through and now it’s accepted. The sports that don’t get funding grizzle, they don’t like it but they understand it, I think. They respect it, but don’t like it.

“The proof is in the pudding at the end of the day. If the high-performance system hadn’t delivered then it probably would have been a different conversation to this. But it has been successful.”

Another key factor has been the buy-in from the Government, and the realisation of politicians in power of the influence of sport and the positive impact it can have on health and other wider political outcomes, such as education and general welfare.

It’s an approach not too dissimilar to that adopted recently by the UK, with several high-profile sports — including basketball — punished for underperforming and not meeting medal targets.

Harsh? Perhaps, but it’s the modern way, the Kiwi way.

That’s why the Federation of Irish Sport were keen to have Miskimmin over here to share some of his insight and knowledge, in the hope key stakeholders on these shores can adapt and succeed too.

In his address at Trinity College last week, Miskimmin made the point that New Zealand didn’t have superior athletes, or resources, but the efficiency in which they used those resources has helped them gain a competitive advantage at high-performance level.

So that’s not to say Irish athletes are inherently less talented, but the pathways, structures and systems in place here are not aligned enough to give our highest performers the best possible chance of success on the world stage.

To that end, Ireland has only won Olympic medals in six different sports and 16 of our 31 have come in the boxing ring, with athletics, sailing, rowing, equestrian and swimming making up the others. Food for thought.

Miskimmin wasn’t in Dublin by coincidence.

“What we say has worked in New Zealand but doesn’t mean it’ll work here,” he stresses. “But if I was to say two things that have played the biggest part, it’s targeting your funding and making sure there’s alignment in the system.

“Having too many people doing things in high performance just creates a lot of voices and certainly if you’ve not got enough money you need to pull together.

“And target your money where you want to target your outcomes. We are placing bets where we think we’re going to get the greatest impact. They’re the two biggest things we’ve done.

Geoff Barry, Mary O’Connor, Mr. Brendan Griffin T.D., John Treacy, Sarah Keane and Peter Miskimmin Geoff Barry, Mary O’Connor, Mr. Brendan Griffin T.D., John Treacy, Sarah Keane and Peter Miskimmin. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“If you’ve got a limited pool of money, and you want outcomes and are frustrated that you’re not getting them, then place your bet where you think you’re going to win. Give them the resources which they need, which is the ability to plan and prepare over multiple years.

“Success breeds success and it’s really about expecting success, expecting to be on the podium.”

Community sport is another key pillar, and that’s where Geoff Barry comes in, with his job to halt dwindling participation rates at a rudimentary level and an increase in child obesity numbers.

“We produce really good athletes through our system from school up,” he says. “But if that number becomes less then we don’t have enough of a resource pool to do what we want to do and what we want to achieve.

“We have real concerns about our participation levels and we’ve got the theory, the broader the base, the higher the pyramid. So we’ve historically had lots of people playing sport but all of a sudden that starts to shrink, then you won’t have enough quality athletes coming through the system.

“The community sport side we have been resting on our laurels and now we realise that the world has changed on us and we’re running quickly to try and put some policies and procedures in place to hold where we are.”

They’re doing a good job, and it’s down to nations like Ireland to catch up.

“There are no secrets, the most important thing is we’re here to learn as well,” Miskimmin adds.

“The world of sport is all about collective learning and shared learning. All of us realise we’re all challenged by trends and participation. We’re all trying to solve similar problems and we might do one thing better than Ireland, and you guys might do something better than us. It’s about learning off each other.”

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